Amelia Island is the most southern of the Barrier Islands, a group of small islands that stretches southwards from Murphy’s Island in South Carolina. It was originally known as the “Isle of Eight Flags” due to frequent changes in political dominion. In order, it was ruled by Spain, France, Spain (encore), a nifty group called the Patriots of Amelia Island, another nifty group called the Green Cross of Florida, Mexico, the Confederacy, and finally the US.
The Green Cross of Florida–known as such by their flag–was a temporary political entity formed from a group of Colonial rabblerousers that invaded the island in what became known as “The Amelia Island Affair.” In 1817, repetitively named Gregor MacGregor, a soi disant brigadier general, rounded up some fellow patriots for the purpose of invading Spanish Florida through the United States. MacGregor, though, had a taste for the luxe and wasted most of his capital on fancy goods rather than on armaments. He also had apparently been acting up in South America, reports of which caused much of his invasion force to desert. Enough of it was left to take over Amelia Island, and once the island was secured, MacGregor bagged off to Nassau. The island was then left in the control of pirate from Galveston by the name of Louis-Michel Aury. The story is a fascinating one and well worth reading. It was these actions that partially propelled the US to annex the Florida peninsula for itself; it sent a small naval force to capture the island from its pirate commander.
Today’s Amelia Island is as American as can be; just off the northwestern tip of it is a large and very noisome paper mill. Paper mills are inescapable sights in both this area and in Georgia, where pine is king.
The northern edge of the island is where you’ll find Fernandina Beach. This is an area of historic commercial buildings in which are housed tourist shops, saloons, and restaurants. It is also the site of the original settlement of the island, and here you will find those only-in-Florida wood frame houses that look to be cracking at the joints. Southwest of this is the main beach area (the island has 13 miles of beaches) and the beach houses that line the A1A. Still farther south are the gated communities that sit far enough back from the road that the person who purchases the first house inside the gates must feel like a poor relation.
Of great sociological interest is American Beach, which was formed to give the black American a beach to use in the days of segregation. American Beach dates back to 1935 and was the premier beach destination for Jacksonville’s black population.
At the southern end of the island, a small bridge leads across a channel to Big Talbot and Little Talbot Islands. The city limits of Jacksonville are not far away, but Amelia Island is a world away from Jacksonville’s reputation as the murder capital of America.
I first visited Amelia Island in the summer of 2009, when I was quickly overcome with my usual summer malady of heat exhaustion. I ended up there this week because I missed the turn from I-95 out to the marshes of north Jacksonville, where I had wanted to photograph a driftwood beach. It turned out to be an enjoyable and perhaps lucky detour, because by the time I got to the driftwood beach at Big Talbot I had a man drive by and honk much too frequently and loudly. This wouldn’t do. He’d turn around within a mile. I got into my car and went to the nice ranger-run Kingsley Plantation instead.